Chattanooga's city attorney said a lawsuit against the city and its animal services provider marks the first court case here claiming that contract employees are performing government functions.
United Pet Supply Inc., the parent company of the recently closed Pet Company store at Hamilton Place mall, filed simultaneous federal and state court lawsuits against McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center and the city last week seeking a total of $10 million in damages.
The suits in Hamilton County Circuit Court and U.S. District Court claim Chattanooga violated the Windsor, N.Y.-based company's civil rights when officers seized animals and records last year. The company claims that a string of actions by McKamey effectively shut down the Pet Company store.
The lawsuit claims violation of its Fifth Amendment rights in relation to the search and seizure of animals, and of its 14th Amendment right to due process. In each case the company seeks $5 million in compensation.
City Attorney Mike McMahan said a lawsuit has claimed that while McKamey officials acted as government officers they violated the shop's constitutional rights.
McMahan said the cases have been assigned to attorneys in his office. He would not comment on the claims.
The city has 20 days to respond in federal court and 60 days to respond to the June 14 filing in state court.
Pet Company attorney Andrew Pippenger also declined to comment Wednesday.
His written complaint details specific actions by McKamey Executive Director Karen Walsh, McKamey Director of Operations Paula Hurn and Animal Services Officer Marvin Nicholson Jr.
Walsh said Wednesday she could not comment on the case.
The complaint states that "at all times relevant, McKamey was an agent of the City acting under color of law, statute, ordinance regulation, custom, practice or usage for the City."
Chattanooga issued a pet sales permit to the Pet Company in 2004 and renewed the permit in 2010. In January 2010 the city changed the permit, requiring a $300 fee and inserting provisions allowing inspection "without limitation," according to the complaint.
From March 2 until April 28, McKamey officers came to the shop seven times and visited the Hamilton Place landlord at least four times. They did not issue any citations and in May granted a permit to the shop, the lawsuit states.
On June 15, 2010, Walsh, Nicholson and Hurn "raided the Pet Shop's store premises without a warrant," confiscating animals, business records, property and the shop's city permit, according to the complaint.
The next day, the McKamey website carried a link to a petition to close the shop, the suit states.
City Court Judge Sherry Paty heard the case in its initial stages. She ultimately ruled that the city had not given the store prior notice and time to fix problems with cooling systems, cleanliness and animal care.
She also ruled that the website link and petition "suggested a bias and motive" for McKamey's actions.
McKamey officials claimed an initial expense of $21,000 to house the confiscated animals. That amount grew to more than $45,000 over the course of the case.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield emailed Paty, asking that she not leave McKamey "holding the bag for all the expenses." Paty then recused herself from the Pet Company case.
She was replaced in August 2010 by Judge Donald P. Harris, who ultimately ruled that the animals be returned to the shop.
The complaint claims that when the animals were returned from McKamey to the Pet Company, "They could not be sold, were underweight, and in various states of poor health."